Here’s a possible round for Family Fortunes (or maybe they’ve already done it). We asked 100 people to name a famous car in a film or TV series.
What would be the top answer? The Batmobile, Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, Knight Rider’s K.I.T.T., Steven King’s Christine? We reckon it could well be Herbie, the 1963 Volkswagen Beetle that made Disney a mint and became a cultural icon for a generation.
Herbie first appeared in 1968’s The Love Bug, the last live-action film that Walt Disney approved. He didn’t live to see it released, but would surely have been delighted at its success — the film was one of the highest grossing film of 1968, exceeded only by 2001: A Space Odyssey and Funny Girl. It was madly profitable, too, raking in $51 million on a $5 million budget. A slew of sequels followed, going all the way up to 2005, and even a short-lived TV series.
It has to be said that Herbie has not aged well. If you haven’t seen a Herbie film since you were ten, it’s probably better to keep it that way. The Love Bug, for example, is full of unfunny comic episodes, annoying characters, and — of course — rubbish special effects. Watching it today, it’s hard to imagine that it was once so wildly popular. Yet popular the films were, and they give us a picture of how fast the world — and Volkswagen — changed in the post-war years.
The Beetle’s difficult start
Let’s not forget that the VW Beetle did not have the easiest of beginnings. Commissioned by Hitler from car designer Dr Ferdinand Porsche, mass production of the Beetle didn’t start until 1945. By then, Germany was in ruins and anti-German sentiment was still running high. Also, the quirky design was not popular with everyone:
“It’s the most God-awful design I ever saw…all the wrong way round.”
Given all that, it might have been expected that the Beetle’s export sales would never get any traction. In fact, the opposite is true. By 1972, the Beetle was the most popular car in the world. So how did the Beetle succeed?
The irony of Herbie’s ‘casting’
Actually, the ‘casting’ of Herbie gives us a clue. The film’s makers considered twelve potential models, including a TVR, Toyotas, and even Volvos (Herbie the Volvo just doesn’t work for us!) Apparently, the Volkswagen Beetle was chosen because it was the only one that the film crew had an urge to pet. That’s pretty ironic, really: a car that was designed on stern utilitarian principles, that was to be practical and affordable, was chosen for its personality.
The film-makers weren’t alone in that view. In addition to its more practical virtues, people had fallen in love with that same quirky design that Lord Nuffield had been so sniffy about. Maybe that was the point: the Beetle felt a wee bit anti-establishment. And by the 1960s, anti-establishment was in vogue. After all, by the time The Love Bug was released, the VW Beetle was already the vehicle of choice for the hippie movement (complemented by the VW camper van).
Product placement? No thanks.
It seems a no-brainer that the Herbie films helped VW’s sales. And that was no thanks to Volkswagen themselves: in another strange irony, they turned down one of the biggest ever opportunities for product placement. VW refused permission for Disney to use the name, so the VW shield does not appear, nor is Herbie ever referred to as either a Volkswagen or as a Beetle.
Perhaps to Volkswagen, the idea of a self-driving car seemed a bit silly back then.